At Antique Textiles Galleries, Heirloom Fabrics Get Second Lives as Chic Decor - 1stDibs Introspective

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At Antique Textiles Galleries, Heirloom Fabrics Get Second Lives as Chic Decor

Vintage fabrics, including an embroidered suzani wall hanging, surround Oskar Torres-Lam of Antique Textiles Galleries in his workroom.
Vintage fabrics, including an embroidered suzani wall hanging, surround Oskar Torres-Lam, of Antique Textiles Galleries, in his workroom. Top: The African fabrics in the main bedroom of the apartment he shares with his husband, writer Jimmy Lam, were purchased on the couple’s last trip to Paris. All photos courtesy of Oskar Torres-Lam/Antique Textiles Galleries

Oskar Torres-Lam’s love for rare textiles and furniture dates back as far as he can remember. “In Ecuador, when I was a child, my mother worked for a custom-shirt atelier, and I was always around fabrics and textiles,” he recalls. 

He immigrated with his family to New York City when he was 15, and by his early 20s he was designing showroom and window displays and catalogue vignettes for the drapery and bedding industry. His passion blossomed after he graduated from the New York School of Interior Design and went to work for some of the industry’s most influential names, including preeminent British author and designer Mary Gilliatt. “She’s the doyenne of English style,” Torres-Lam says. “My design aesthetic and knowledge of textiles came from the years I worked for her.” 

In 2012, Torres-Lam decided to go out on his own and founded Antique Textiles Galleries, opening on the fourth floor of a brownstone situated on one of Madison Avenue’s most stylish stretches, among the flagship boutiques of Ralph Lauren, Celine and Tom Ford

Eight years later, Torres-Lam is a favored source for such designers as Bunny Williams, Michael Smith, Brian McCarthy, Thomas Jayne and Ike Kligerman Barkley. He’s their go-to for global finds ranging from 17th-century Flemish tapestry panels and 19th-century Persian velvet to Kuba cloth from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and mid-century American fabric. These unique pieces have been transformed into bespoke upholstery and decor, framed as art and, on rare occasions, used as fashion-forward sartorial details. 

He now operates exclusively online from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which he shares with his husband, Dominican writer Jimmy Lam. Torres-Lam spoke with Introspective about the appeal of antique textiles and the right way to use them, as well as his penchant for Persian velvets.

A vintage hand-blocked red and brown Kalamkari cotton paisley coverlet/cloth hangs in the background. On the table is a stack of vintage hand-blocked Indian bed covers and vintage embroidered suzanis from Uzbekistan, and a pillow made from vintage Indian colorful floral embroidered fabric, laying on top of a Moroccan beige and white wedding blanket with white fringe and silver sequins. All available from Antique Textiles Galleries.
“I’m always styling and mixing textiles together,” Torres-Lam says. Here, a stack of vintage hand-blocked Indian bed covers and embroidered suzanis from Uzbekistan sits on a Moroccan wedding blanket with white fringe and silver sequins. The pillow is covered in a vintage Indian fabric with peacock embroidery. A vintage hand-blocked Kalamkari paisley coverlet hangs in the background.

You have a huge collection of textiles representing nearly every time period and style. How do you build your inventory?

I only buy items that I love and that I want to have in my possession for a long time. The collection on 1stDibs alone is now at sixteen hundred pieces. Before the pandemic, I’d be on a plane once a month to source new inventory from my regular dealers in Paris, L.A., Atlanta, New Orleans, Brimfield [Massachusetts], Hudson [New York], Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Argentina. 

I also shop at the local level, and we accept consignments from customers all the time. Antiques malls and vintage-clothing stores are my favorites — so many textile treasures to be found if you have a trained eye. 

How do you store all those textiles?

We have them in climate-controlled storerooms. You have to be very careful with them. Some of them can’t be folded or else the creases will damage the material. 

A vintage plate rack holds a collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century metallic decorative trims owned by Oskar Torres-Lam of Antique Textiles Galleries.
“I found this vintage plate rack and use it to display our collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century metallic decorative trims,” says Torres-Lam. “I mostly use them to embellish the antique-textile pillows that I design for our collections, and we also sell them to interior designers. They’re great to use on upholstery, drapes and bedding. I’ve been collecting trims since I was in design school in New York.”

Are there any periods or styles you’re especially drawn to?

Every region of the world has its own unique, amazing weaving abilities, and I have a very eclectic background. I have a soft spot for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Persian velvets with metallic embroidery and also hand-blocked Kalamkari paisley patterns, which were made in India under the influence of Persian designs. When you look at them, you can tell that sometimes the artisans had run out of one material and their challenge was to try to match it with a different thread. 

I also love some eighteenth-century Venetian embroidered panels we have with exquisite silk-floss threads embroidered onto heavy linen depicting birds, flowers and scrolling vines.

Many of the textiles in your collection are used for interior design elements — pillows, upholstery. Are they not too fragile?

I get calls from interior designers who say, “I’m working on this kind of project with this color scheme — what can you send me?” They know my background and trust that I’ll send them the right materials. Some textiles are more durable, and some are just too precious to even lean on them. 

We try to clean and restore our textiles as much as we can before they go into production, and I advise clients to be careful where to exhibit them. They are not ordinary or everyday utilitarian pieces. With pillows, we make the backings in a different material so they can be leaned on or handled. We’ve transformed Japanese kesa fabric into patchwork for a headboard and a heavily embroidered Ottoman Empire textile into a bed topper, and many velvets have been used for upholstery.

A pillow made from an antique blue-and-gold silk Japanese obi, created by Antique Textiles Galleries
“This pillow made from an antique blue-and-gold-silk Japanese obi was a custom order from an interior designer,” says Torres-Lam. “They chose the textile from our inventory, we helped them with the finished design, and our workshop created the pillow.”

You seem to be especially fond of pillows. 

I have always had a fascination with pillows. I learned about them early on when I was involved in the bedding and drapery industry, and I have long incorporated antique and vintage cushions in my own projects. 

My mother taught me how to sew when I was younger. Some people have a good stove. We always had a good sewing machine around. I don’t sew the pillows now, however. After selecting textiles and trims and embellishments, I draw them with all the details, and then we work with an amazing studio to create them. The people there are also masters when it comes to textile restoration. 

Do you see a lot of copies of vintage and antique textiles?

Yes, I remember not selling any suzanis — which are Central European textiles — a few years back because the mass-market retailers were producing computer-generated copies. Fez Moroccan embroidery became copied and mass-produced as well. 

There are also current-day versions of antique textiles. It’s easy to spot the difference. With Kalamkari, for instance, the antiques are hand-blocked and stamped on the back with the mark of the studio, and they contain imperfections. Today, they are made with plates, and they look too perfect. 

A lot of people don’t understand why an antique suzani is five hundred dollars and the Pottery Barn copy is forty-nine dollars, but our clientele have an eye for beautiful things and know what they are buying.  

Antique Textiles Galleries original Upper East Side showroom location.
The pillow is an 18th-century French brocade textile. The chair is a late-19th-century Dutch Barley twist armchair. The antique three-panel folding screen is made from an 18th-century Flemish tapestry. On the table is a large antique English needlework tapestry wall hanging, and on the tray is a pile of colorful vintage woven hemp Asian textiles from Thailand.
An antique folding screen made with an 18th-century Flemish tapestry was among the standout pieces in Antique Textiles Galleries’ former showroom, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A display of colorful vintage hemp textiles from Thailand and an antique English needlework tapestry decorated the table.

What is the appeal of using an antique textile?

The antique textiles come with history; they bring their own stories. They are conversation pieces. We try to educate our clients, and each of our textiles comes with research in terms of age, period, where it came from, if it was handcrafted, if it came from a larger object like a rug. They come with a narrative, and people are attracted to that. 

Have there been any objects that you didn’t want to let go of?

Yes, I took an eighteenth-century Aubusson tapestry that was only eighteen inches wide and used it to upholster a wing chair. I really loved it because the tapestry went right down the middle of the chair and you could see it from every angle from which you could view the chair. It makes me sad to give things up, but I’m glad when they go to a good home.

Oskar Torres-Lam’s Talking Points

“The refined embroidery and intricate pattern of this Venetian textile show the artisan’s great attention to detail.”

“African textiles like this appliquéd raffia patchwork are always in demand.”

“Every collection needs a statement piece, and this lush late-nineteenth-century wall hanging is our crown jewel.”

“With the resurgence of upcycling in fashion and home decor, I designed these pillows by alternating five-inch squares of both the front and reverse of a Fortuny textile.”

“We fully restored and lined this eighteenth-century Turkish embroidered silk-velvet vest with a silk-ikat textile. It can be worn or displayed.”

“These pillows are handwoven and vegetable dyed in the high regions of Ecuador. I love looking for textiles from all around the world.”

“This silk-velvet textile was originally a tablecloth. I designed a pillow collection from it. I love the brushed-velvet texture and the weight of the pile of the silk brocade. The cloth is very evocative of high-Victorian style, but the color makes it feel suitable for today’s interiors.”

“I can only imagine the temple this cloth was made to enhance.”

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